Monday, July 7, 2008

Hamas tries to enforce Gaza cease-fire (allegedly)

Like a Gettysburg battlefield tour guide, Ali Kafarna pointed out the scars of war as he walked through the fields between his home and the Israeli border.

"Here's where the tanks used to stop," said Ali, 14, as he passed a dirt berm dug into dry grass littered with shrapnel and animal bones. "Here's where they used to fire rockets," Ali said of the charred square of earth that Palestinians used as a launching pad to attack Israel.

Until last month, this area was a no-go zone for Ali and his family. Two weeks into a shaky cease-fire, Palestinian families are using the relative calm to visit bullet-scarred homes a few hundred yards from the Israeli border and replant orchards uprooted by the Israeli military.

But the Egyptian-brokered peace is slowly unraveling as Hamas leaders in Gaza struggle to keep militants – especially their Fatah rivals – from firing the occasional rocket at Israel.

It's an awkward situation for Hamas: After years of derailing Palestinian peace talks with Israel by staging suicide bombings, Hamas is now the one asking rivals to halt their attacks on Israel.

Hamas is using a mix of coercion and shame to try and keep militants from breaking the deal. In the past week, Hamas has arrested two Fatah members and given them stern warnings to fall in line.

Hamas also has directed all militants to get permission before firing any rockets at Israel. If that happens without approval, a Hamas-led crisis management team steps in.

And the Islamist group has publicly accused Gaza rocket launchers of betraying the Palestinian people and playing into Israeli hands by staging their attacks.

So far, it hasn't been enough.

Since the cease-fire took hold on June 19, Gaza militants have fired 11 rockets and mortars at southern Israel. They caused little damage but Israel used them to justify temporarily blocking the flow of supplies into Gaza.

In response, Hamas leaders have accused Israel of breaking its part of the deal by closing the borders. They've also warned that the shutdown could jeopardize the possible release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Gaza militants more than two years ago.

"We are trying to do our best here to make sure no one is violating or abusing the agreement," Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said Thursday.

But for Fatah fighters routed by Hamas forces during the Gaza takeover last summer, there is little incentive to comply: If the cease-fire holds, it'll make Hamas look even better.

Last week, Fatah militants took credit for one of the rocket volleys that hit Israel – a move that prompted Hamas to threaten arrests.

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